Back when Capt. John Smith and Chief Powhatan butted heads in the early 1600s, the Algonquian village of Werowocomoco along the York River was fringed with marshland where inhabitants hunted and fished.
Four centuries later, much of that marshy shoreline has been lost to erosion, hurricanes and rising sea levels that are also threatening what today is considered a unique archeological site.
To protect it, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) in Gloucester Point has been asked to design an enhanced living shoreline that would mimic the landscape of that early village, and be resilient enough to weather a changing climate and ever-rising seas.
Once it's completed, federal and state park officials believe Werowocomoco could one day rival Jamestown as a historic heritage site and tourist draw.
"The National Park Service and the Virginia Department of Historical Resources, they consider this one of their most important historic sites," said Donna Milligan, a VIMS researcher and a project leader. "It sort of presents the other point of view from Jamestown — this really tells the Native American side."
VIMS is affiliated with the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, and has decades of expertise with living shorelines. Now it's been given a $199,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to embark on the first phase of the restoration project.
The 57-acre site lies on the north bank of the York halfway between Yorktown and West Point, and is believed to be where Capt. Smith was saved by Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas.
Today the land is owned by Bob and Lynn Ripley, who VIMS says granted permission for a conservation easement and archeological excavations.
Milligan said they envision the project unfolding in three phases along the 1,300-foot shoreline as funding permits.
The first and most critical phase includes a 300-foot section bisected by an existing pier that's under threat of erosion. The most likely plan, she said, will be to build two sills, or rock piles, about 125 feet long and parallel to the shore, separated by a 50-foot gap for the pier. The construction will be bidded out to a local marine contractor.
Sand will be added to the site, and Milligan said students from the Ware Academy in Gloucester will plant marsh grasses between the sills and the shoreline, creating about 15,000 square feet of marsh that will keep 900,000 pounds of sediment and nearly 500 pounds of phosphorus and nitrogen from the river every year. She estimates the initial phase will take 16 months and could be completed by the end of next year.
Martin Gallivan, head of archeology at Werowocomoco and an anthropology professor at William and Mary, said the extent of erosion at the site since Powhatan's time has been "considerable."
According to VIMS, aerial imagery shows the most exposed sections of the Werowocomoco shoreline are eroding by more than 1.5 feet every year. Since the 1930s, the most vulnerable stretches have retreated nearly 100 feet.
The long-term plan for the entire site, which is more than 250 acres, includes transferring it to public ownership, with easy access from Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and other historical sites, VIMS says.
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.